Coal Tattoo

President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)


President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Here in West Virginia, the big political story over the last week has obviously been Gov. Jim Justice’s return to the Republican party.

Some of the media are of course very interested in promoting one of the governor’s reasons — this pretty far-out idea that the federal government is going to start subsidizing Appalachian steam coal production to the tune of $15 a ton.

There’s also a lot of interest in continuing to promote the sort of pandering that Gov. Justice (not to mention President Trump) are pushing that there’s a huge coal boom just around the corner. This is a comforting thought, both to state political leaders and to many of our fellow West Virginians. Just look at the last of those silly “Jim was right” press releases that Gov. Justice’s press office put out back while he was still a Democrat.

A huge coal boom would mean none of us would have to do the really hard work of building other kinds of economies in our coalfield communities — at least not right now. And it’s true that there has been an increase in coal jobs in West Virginia over the last three quarters. Taylor Kuykendall, the go-to guy among the media for these kind of numbers, explained last week:

Coal jobs in West Virginia are up 18.3% year over year in the second quarter, according to a new S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis of federal data, and up about 12.2% compared to the fourth quarter of 2016. The year-over-year increase represents about 2,132 jobs, while the increase from the final quarter of 2016 represents about 1,493 jobs.

But keep in mind, if you go back further than the last few quarters, or a year-over-year comparison, the increase in jobs doesn’t come anywhere close to rebuilding the sort of coal-based economy that politicians would have you believe is going to reappear.  Data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows that West Virginia lost 13,000 coal jobs between the post-2000 high mark in the 4th quarter of 2011 and the low point in the 3rd quarter of 2016. Our state lost half of its coal-mining jobs in just that five-year period. We’ve only gained back a fraction of those. And the projections don’t suggest the jobs are going to keep coming back.

Take a look at the new short-term energy forecast out this week from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

Coal exports for the first five months of 2017 were 37 million short tons (MMst), which was 60% higher than coal exports over the same period last year. EIA expects growth in coal exports to slow in the coming months, with exports for all of 2017 forecast at 70 MMst, 17% above the 2016 level. The increase in coal exports contributes to an expected 58 MMst (8%) increase in coal production in 2017. In 2018, coal production is forecast to increase by 10 MMst (1%).

Maybe all the projections are wrong, and coal in West Virginia has a really bright future.  That seems pretty unlikely, and a tremendously risky bet for our state. But even if you assume for the sake of argument that it happenes, when are our political leaders going to start talking seriously about what they’re going to do about black lung, or about the environmental and public health damage from mountaintop removal? Or about the safety rules that their new buddy President Trump is reversing? What about the increase so far this year in coal-mining deaths?

More importantly, exactly what would a coal boom mean for the climate crisis?

The recent attention given by the media (by the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and others) to the latest national climate assessment by our nation’s best scientists paints a pretty dark present and future (from the AP story):

The assessment said global temperatures will continue to rise without steep reductions in the burning of fossil fuels, with increasingly dire effects on the lives of every American.

Even if humans stop spewing heat-trapping gases today, the world will warm another half a degree (0.3 degrees Celsius), the report said, citing high confidence in those calculations. Scientists, such as Stanford University’s Chris Field, say that even a few tenths of a degree of warming can have a dramatic impact on human civilization and the natural environment.

“Every increment in warming is an increment in risk,” said Field, who wasn’t part of the report but reviewed it for The National Academy of Sciences.

As for coal, here’s what that scientific report had to say:

Carbon emissions and economic growth may be beginning to decouple, as global 20 economies led by China and the United States phase out coal and begin the transition to 21 renewable, non-carbon energy … 


The cumulative carbon emissions that would allow the world to meet a given global temperature target can also be compared to known fossil fuel reserves to calculate how much of their carbon would have to “stay in the ground” to meet these targets, in the absence of widespread carbon capture and storage … 

It is estimated that to meet the 2°C (3.6°F) target, two thirds of known global fossil fuel reserves would need to remain in the ground. Accounting for the differing carbon content of various types of fuels, in order to meet the 2°C target one third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80% of coal reserves would need to remain unused, as well as any new unconventional, undeveloped, or undiscovered resources .

For more on that, you could read the paper that the new report cites, “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C,” published two years ago by the journal Nature.  Among other things, the paper reports:

Our results show that policy makers’ instincts to exploit rapidly and completely their territorial fossil fuels are, in aggregate, inconsistent with their commitments to this temperature limit …  These results demonstrate that a stark transformation in our understanding of fossil fuel availability is necessary. Although there have previously been fears over the scarcity of fossil fuels, in a climate-constrained world this is no longer a relevant concern: large portions of the reserve base and an even greater proportion of the resource base should not be produced if the temperature rise is to remain below 2°C .

What West Virginia political leader will even try to face these facts?